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Communications of the ACM

Europe Region special section: Hot topics

On-Skin Computing

female hand

Credit: Getty Images

Modern wearable computers are miniaturized, offer unprecedented mobility, and can even interface with the human body to monitor vital signs. Yet they have much more in common with their ancestor—the PC—than you might think. Just like old-fashioned computers, they are made of conventional electronics and therefore remain rigid and rather thick. This not only compromises ergonomics, but also limits the size of the devices and restricts where they can be deployed on the user. Can we instead make computers soft and malleable, such that they truly adapt to the human body?

A new generation of wearable devices, redesigned from the ground up, promises a significantly better compatibility with the human body. These so-called epidermal devices—devices modeled after human skin—are made of soft and stretchable materials and are two to three orders of magnitude thinner than traditional devices; in fact, they are typically much thinner than the diameter of a single strand of hair.2 Therefore, they can be worn as a barely noticeable patch on the skin. Embedded functional materials create fully flexible electronic components for sensing, output, processing, and power in a micron-thin form factor (see Figure 1).


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